On some free range egg and broiler (meat bird) farms the outdoor range is a fenced open field with no overhead cover for birds. This does not allow the birds the opportunity to seek shade/shelter while in the range. The number of birds in the range depends on the availability of overhead cover and it is possible to get the birds out of the shed and improve their ranging ability by installing shaded areas.
Chickens in an open range usually remain close to the poultry house and leave the area denuded of forage. However, when overhead shade is provided within 20 to 30 metres of the shed, more birds will be encouraged into the range. Birds experience a perceived threat from predators if there is no overhead protection provided by shaded areas. Shaded areas also allow birds to dust bathe and engage in scratching behaviours, as well as to sit and rest. When shade areas are provided and birds use the range to a greater extent the risk of feather pecking is also reduced.
Outdoor overhead areas can be constructed from strong, permeable commercial shade cloth supported by posts. A longer-term alternative would be to provide vegetation cover (e.g. trees and/or shrubs) across the range, in the form of ‘shelter belts’. However, FREPA’s Meg Parkinson recommends choosing species that would not attract wild birds into the range, an unwanted side-effect of providing vegetation. Where these methods cannot be employed, birds have been encouraged to use the range by simply placing hay bales out to offer some degree of shelter.
Birds prefer overhead cover to be within one (1) metre of ground level as it provides them a sense of extra security from birds of prey. A number of shade areas (10 x 10m) comprising about 1/3 of the area of the shed should be provided. These can be arranged to provide minimal distances between shelters, offering ‘connectivity’ across the range and allowing birds to utilise the entire outdoor space provided. It is critical to ensure that under extreme wind conditions the shaded areas are properly secured. Obtain advice from your local shade cloth distributor.